Human augmentation is generally used to refer to technologies that enhance human productivity or capability. It spans a wide gamut of technologies, ranging from implants, prosthetic limbs, enhanced sensory devices, powered exoskeletons, and more.
Human augmentation technologies have the potential to enhance our innate human abilities in many ways. For example, it could be used to replace missing limbs or correct physical disabilities. In fact, some of the latest prosthetic devices have now reached the stage where they offer equivalent or slightly improved functionality over human limbs.
Military organizations are now experimenting with a wide range of 1st generation human augmentation technologies, including exoskeletons that allow personnel to carry increased loads and perform at a higher level. These devices have the potential to be adapted for use in healthcare and many other industries.
Elderly people could benefit from powered human augmentation technology, such as powered exoskeletons, that can be used to assist wearers with simple walking and lifting activities, improving the health and quality of life for aging populations.
New implantable brain-machine interfaces have been developed and are being tested that are demonstrating that directly bridging the gap between brain and prosthetics devices are becoming a reality – allowing prosthetic devices to be directly integrated with the user’s body.
Neuro-enhancement technology under development could also provide superior memory recall or speed of thought for humans. Think of the possibilities for the those suffering from some form of dementia.
Human augmentation technology will probably not begin to be widely available for at least 10-15 years. However, as the field continues to advance, some people may eventually choose to enhance their bodies, much as they do with cosmetic surgery today. The high cost of human augmentation technology may lead to the emergence of a two-tiered society of enhanced and non-enhanced persons.
Think about the implications!
A powered exoskeleton consists primarily of an outer framework worn by a person coupled with a powered system of motors or hydraulics that delivers part of the energy needed for limb movement. The main function of a powered exoskeleton is to assist the wearer by boosting their strength and endurance.
To date, powered exoskeletons have primarily been designed and developed for use by the military. Similar exoskeletons are now being designed for use by firefighters and other rescue workers in dangerous environments.
The medical field is another prime area for exoskeleton technology development and use. For example, it could be used to assist nurses in moving heavy patients. It could also be used by patients with major physical disabilities, missing limbs, and many who are currently wheelchair-bound.
A variation of the exoskeleton concept is a mecha – robots or machines controlled by people from the inside. They are typically much larger than a normal human body and are controlled by a human operator occupying a control seat inside a larger robotic system. Remember the movie Avatar?
Wearable machines that enhance human muscle power are poised to be rolled out for use on the factory floor. These large robots or exoskeleton systems could help factory workers lift and use heavy tools, enable soldiers to carry heavy loads over long distances, and enable spinal injury patients to walk.
Many problems remain to be solved, like the creation of a compact power supply powerful enough to allow an exoskeleton to operate for extended periods without being plugged into external power. However, these problems are being solved as work continues on a growing number of next generation exoskeleton systems.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated development of exoskeletons in 2001 under the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation Program. Check out some of the following examples:
|A robotic exoskeleton that is light and comfortable is being developed by Harvard scientists for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) called the Soft 'Exosuit'. It will help people lift heavier loads than they are naturally capable of lifting. Experts hope to eventually merge the prototype Exosuit with real clothing so it will become a second skin and benefit athletes, soldiers and those who cannot walk because of muscle injuries.|
Several companies have also created exoskeleton systems for use in medicine. For example, check out the following solutions:
Various organizations and projects teams have now tapped into the 'open source' movement and practices to collaborate, share, and speed up the development of a wide range of innovative human augmentation solutions, including exoskeleton systems. For example:
|The Titan Arm is worn by the user and augments their existing strength. It’s meant for use in occupational circumstances like those doing repetitive lifts, and for use in physical therapy. The device can be used to reduce workplace injuries like back strain, and can also be used to help victims of stroke and other injuries and disabilities to restore upper body functionality. Ordinarily, a custom exoskeleton could cost upwards of $100,000, however the Titan Arm team have managed to build a product at a total cost of around $2000.|
Insurance companies may eventually cover part of the tab for medical exoskeletons because of the many health benefits and cost savings associated with providing greater mobility to many patients who are currently disabled.
* Check out Exoskeleton News posted on the Scoop.it news web site.
The development of human augmentation technology and exoskeletons is primed for significant growth over the coming decade(s). Think of the many benefits to the military, manufacturing, factories, healthcare, gaming, and many other industries. As we move into the next generation of this technology and become more aware of its potential, more and more actors are getting into the game – especially the robotics and information technology (IT) industries.
Open source is already starting to play a key role in the development of human augmentation systems. Sharing open source software, open source CAD designs, use of low cost open source hardware, open standards, open IT architecture, … are helping to speed up the development life cycle, lower costs. and spur innovative new solutions.
|As many as 44 million workers in the European Union (EU) are affected by work-place related musculoskeletal disorders, representing a total annual cost to industry of more than $300 billion. To overcome these challenges, the Robo-Mate Project aims to develop an intelligent, easy-to-handle, and wearable body exoskeleton for manual-handling work. The aim of the project is to reduce work related injuries and diseases thereby increase productivity, flexibility and the quality of production across Europe.|
If you're looking for a hot new field to enter that will start to dominate the marketplace in the 2020-2030 timeframe, this is it.
In closing, check out this recent story in the New York Post – "Paralyzed Veterans competing in race in exoskeleton suit". It may provide you with some inspiration.
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